For years, sake (nihonshu in Japanese) was considered a somewhat dying tipple. However, international interest has seen Japan’s best-known native beverage make a bit of a renaissance. Kansai, the area around Osaka and Kyoto, is one of the regions known for its sake, as it has the indigenous ingredients needed to craft great brews: good rice and natural mineral water, plus cool temperatures in winter, which is production season. If you’re looking to distinguish your daiginjo from your honjozo and learn more about the brewing process, here are our top picks for a two- or three-day tour – from large producers to the indie upstarts.
If you’ve ever had a cup of nihonshu at a Japanese restaurant abroad, chances are that it was made by Gekkeikan. One of the world’s oldest companies, Gekkeikan has been producing sake since 1637 and established a US outpost in 1989 which caters to the international market. Home, though, is Fushimi, now part of Kyoto and known for its fine water.
Here you’ll find the Gekkeikan Okura Museum (247 Minamihamacho, Fushimi, Kyoto, 075 623 2056). This informative sake sanctuary is easily explored alone, but it’s well worth booking at least a day in advance and getting a guided tour (in Japanese, although signs are bilingual), as you’ll be able to enter the small-scale brewery next door too. Save time for a stroll around Fushimi, as the charming town boasts a slew of traditional houses, a moat, and some small temples that – of course – have Gekkeikan sake barrels next to their entrances.
Every winter in bygone days, the toji (sake brewers) of the Tanba region would make the trek to Nada near Kobe to help out with the local labour shortage and make sake at the breweries there, and to this day, the Tanba toji are held in very high regard. Although it’s not exactly the easiest place to get to – most of it is very rural, and the few train stations dotted around see a train an hour, if that – a visit to this region is highly rewarding for the more intrepid nihonshu lover.
Nishiyama Shuzojo (1171 Nakatakeda Ichijimacho, Tanba, Hyogo, 0795 86 0331) is a good place to start. The brewery has operated for over 160 years, but doesn’t shy away from a little change to keep with the times. They produce a variety of nihonshu year-round, and export to 24 countries around the world. Brewery tours (in English) are arranged on demand (call ahead or book via email), and generally start between 1pm and 3pm. If you finish early enough, check out nearby Fukuchiyama Castle, and spend the evening kicking back in a hot spring – Fukuchiyama Onsen and the affiliated hotel are a 20-odd minute taxi ride away.
Wedged between Osaka and Kobe, the Nada Gogo (Five villages of Nada) – Nishi, Mikage, Uozaki, Nishinomiya and Imazu – are known throughout Japan for their nihonshu production. Seeing as 30 percent of all sake produced in Japan is made in Nada, it’s one of the best places to indulge in a little tipple and learn a bit more.
All of the breweries here (a good 40 in total) rely on the mythical, mineral-containing miyamizu water, which flows from Mt Rokko, to create the region’s characteristic dry nihonshu. The western and central bits of the region are arguably the most interesting, with many old brewery buildings having been converted into museums, whereas Nishinomiya and Imazu have few sightseeing opportunities to speak of and only occasionally offer brewery tours (in Japanese and by reservation only).
Nada is relatively easy to get to, with both JR and Hanshin railways having multiple stations in the area. It’s a five-minute walk from Hanshin Sumiyoshi Station to the first brewery museum, Hakutsuru (4-5-5 Sumiyoshi-Minamimachi, Higashi-Nada, Kobe, 078 822 8907). From the outside, the walled-off complex looks a little intimidating, and the humongous factory (brewery) is a far cry from the small, traditional buildings you may equate with sake breweries.
Fear not, however, as the free museum, set in a low Japanese-style building, is where the action is: in terms of explaining the entire brewing process, it’s one of the best exhibits going. Labels and videos are in multiple languages, and you can scan the QR codes for more information. After that, you’ll have a solid knowledge base for checking out the other breweries.
Next, visit Kikumasamune (1-9-1 Uozaki-Nishimachi, Higashi-Nada, Kobe, 078 854 1029), a ten-minute walk east. Besides the sake samples offered in the shop, be sure to check out their range of makeup and skincare products. Sake brewers are said to have exceptionally smooth skin due to working with the fermented koji and shubo (yeast) mix, and many sake breweries have developed a sideline producing great moisturisers, cleansers and balms based on this same principle. The brewery is also one of the few to still use the kimoto (traditional shubo-making) process, which is explained through an insightful video.
Hamafukutsuru (4-4-6 Uozaki-Minamimachi, Higashi-Nada, Kobe, 078 411 8339) is the smallest brewery in Nada, but also one of the most interesting: it’s the only one where you can see the brewing process as it happens (they even have a small button which, when pressed, lets you experience the smell of fermenting sake).
The original brewery, like many in Nada, was destroyed completely in the 1995 Hanshin earthquake, but miraculously they managed to reopen just a year later, in a bid to reinvigorate the local community and regain pride. As a memorial, one of their signature brews is the Kuzo (空蔵), the name being a combination of ‘open’ or ‘sky’ and the character commonly used for ‘brewery’. Tastings are available at the counter; ask the staff for recommendations.
Nada doesn’t offer a lot of food options in between breweries, but there’s more around the stations. Close to JR Sumiyoshi Station, Shizenha Chuka Kuijin (3-14-12 Sumiyoshi-Miyamachi, Higashi-Nada, Kobe, 078 821 5350) does great, natural Chinese-style lunch sets for ¥1,200, while the Sakuramasamune brewery (Sakuraen) (4-3-18 Uozaki-Minamimachi, Higashi-Nada, Kobe, 078 436 3030) has a small café, a full-scale kaiseki restaurant and a bar.
If you’re looking to gain even more liquid knowledge, consider joining a group led by the UK-based Sake Sommelier Association. The SSA organises all kinds of courses and events, for everyone from beginners to sake experts, both in Japan and abroad – among these is the Advanced Sake Sommelier Course, which includes a hands-on sake-making experience and is aimed at those with previous sake-related qualifications. If you’re looking to get into the nitty gritty of sake styles and selections, do contact them for more details. (Full disclosure: this writer used to host sake demonstrations with the SSA in London).